Ed note: A version of this post originally appeared on AiP on Sept. 20th, 2010.
While the primary purpose of stamps has been to pre-pay for the transportation and delivery of mail, postage has helped preserve histories around the world. The world's first postage stamp was the Penny Black invented by Sir Rowland Hill, founder of the Penny Post. It was issued in 1840 by the United Kingdom, and depicted a young Queen Victoria. Seven years later, in an effort to modernize the American postal system, the Benjamin Franklin, 5-cent stamp was issued. Franklin, the first American postmaster, was selected for the image over the recently deceased Andrew Jackson—in part, because he would be recognized as a unifying figure between the conflicted states.
Kristi Evans (1992) has a nice study that demonstrates how this type of cultural record can tell us about Polish history. Evans discusses unofficial stamps that were created by the outlawed Solidarity union, which presents a particular snapshot of Poland in the 1980s.
Solidarity positioned itself as representing the desire of the Polish nation (the people) to oppose the state (recognized as "Eastern, alien, despotic—as in a word, Russian") (Evans 1992: 751). The stamps often included imagery suggesting sacrifice on the part of the nation in enduring the state. They highlighted events that could take on huge symbolic import for the nation and become integral to identity—a shared national memory remembered through the printing and use of stamps.
For example, in Poland in 1940 Soviet secret police murdered Polish nationals in the Katyn Forest. The order was based on a proposal to execute the Polish Officer Corps, and some 22,000 people were killed. This event came to be known as the Katyn massacre. Evans describes some of the Katyn stamps in her research (1992: 754):
A. The word "Katyn" alone, constructed from crosses.
B. "Katyn," with a forest and the emblem of the Soviet Union.
C. "Matka Boska Katynska" (Madonna of Katyn) with crosses in a clearing. A box in the upper lefthand corner of the stamp frames the picture of a weeping mother and child.
D. "Katyn," with a stylized drawing of a person standing like a cross and weeping.
E. "Katyn," with a gun pointed at the head of a blindfolded man.
F. "Katyn," with white candles (against a black background flickering in a triangular formation.
G. "Katyn 1940," with a prominent red star, a skill wearing a Polish military cap, and the exclamation "[We remember!!!]" written in red and stylized graffiti.
The images evoke a sense of "betrayal and sacrifice," and in connection with Polish history create a very specific point of identity:
By grounding Poland's defining events in a particular space, representations by place creates a geographically situated consciousness of history and "Poland." Poland is defined in opposition to Russia, to the Soviets, and to the Communists, and all three are collapsed into the Katyn image (Evans 1992: 756).
Stamps helped transmit these ideas via circulation, and ensured their longevity as collectors preserved them for posterity. In owning stamps, people claimed a certain connection to the nation and to a shared history. This is a particularly salient point given that the majority of Solidarity stamps were unofficial and not used to circulate mail:
In collecting underground stamps, individuals can appropriate for themselves the subversive images of the imagined community and locate themselves within a community partially defined by the circulation of these images (Evans 1992: 750).
This sense of sharedness, this connection, can help us understand the significance of certain events as experienced by nations and the ways in which they choose to represent themselves. This is evident in the American postal stamp history: a survey of the stamps displayed by the American Art collection highlights advances in transportation, communication, and industry, as well as achievements in the arts and sciences.
In addition to national social commentary, stamp choices can tell us a lot about the individual, as well. Choosing Katyn-themed stamps aligns the individual with Solidarity. But stamps can also tell us about the everyday interests of the individual—from baseball to cars to movie stars to cartoons, there are stamps to match hobbies and passions and past times. While using a particular stamp might not correlate with whether that person played sports or drove a Formula 1 racer, it can tell us about what appeals to an individual. Finding an old shoe box with envelopes bearing canceled stamps can provide a lot of information about the public and private histories of an individual:
Stamps, which are the basis for the circulation of correspondence, facilitate communication while simultaneously expressing certain ideas and emotions through their own imagery (Evans 1992: 750).
Stamps may face an uncertain future as we move increasingly toward digital means of communication. Snail mail may never be entirely eradicated, but there may be less of a need for decorative postage as time goes by. It will be interesting to see whether stamps take on purely a symbolic role, or if they are destined to be removed as cultural currency entirely.
Evans, K. (1992). The Argument of Images: Historical Representation In Solidarity Underground Postage, 1981-87 American Ethnologist, 19 (4), 749-767 DOI: 10.1525/ae.1992.19.4.02a00070